Links:   Home   |   Divrei Torah List


Rosh Hashanah, 5774/2013
Rabbi Rachel Dvash Schoenfeld

Shannah Tova. Over the past few months as the new rabbi, I have enjoyed connecting with Shir Hadash. I’ve been thinking a lot about connections, and what we can accomplish together, things that we can’t accomplish individually. One of my favorite midrashim is about ways of connecting, and I’d like to share it now, as we think about deeper and deeper ways of connecting, to ourselves, to each other, and to morality and/or the divine, today, on Rosh Hashannah.

The midrash begins with Moses going up Mt Sinai to receive the ten commandments. In the Babylonian Talmud, section “Shabbat,” it says that after Moses climbed up the mountain, when Moses saw God, God wasn’t waiting for him, but was otherwise occupied. What was God doing? God was busy putting the ‘keterim’ on Hebrew letters. This word can be translated as “crowns”, the word refers to marks that are in the Torah attached to some letters, which have no practical significance, but which are said to have mystical significance. So, in the midrash, God is occupied in attaching the crowns to the Hebrew letters, and Moses sees this, and doesn’t know whether to interrupt or not. I picture Moses as a child walking into an adult’s study, seeing the adult hard at work, and not knowing exactly what to do. In the midrash, finally God asks, rather ironically, “Moses, where you come from, do people not say ‘Shalom’ to each other?”, to which Moses replies, a bit puzzled, “may a servant greet his master?”. God replies, nicely but a bit chastisingly “But still, you should have said something.” The midrash then fast forwards to the next time Moses comes up the mountain. The next time he comes up to the mountain and sees God, Moses wants to do it differently. Moses cries out “May the power of the Lord increase!”, and then, gingerly adds “Is this not what you told me to do?”

This midrash takes place at Mt Sinai, as Moses is getting to the top to receive Torah. Instead of this being a big thunder and lightning moment, a moment of meeting, when Moses first sees God, God is preoccupied. What is God preoccupied with? With writing keterim, mystical signs, on top of the letters of the Torah. Moses is waiting for an encounter with God here, and, God is busy entrenched in mysticism, involved in what could be perceived as unimportant, irrelevant details. Many of us are like Moses today. We’d be happy to have a conversation with the Divine, but, when we first approach, it’s like we’re approaching our dad who is busy on the computer. We don’t want to impose, and don’t know how to start. And, of course, the word “God” is also a metaphor here. The same dynamic happens to us when we approach our sense of “morality”, which I often think of as a synonym for God. “Morality” can seem amorphous – how does one begin to have a conversation with “Morality”, which isn’t even corporeal, or capable of answering back? And beyond starting conversations with esoteric concepts such as God or Morality, we also have this dynamic in conversations with people. At kiddish after services, in our families, we don’t know how to begin a conversation, especially an important one, and so, many times, we wait.

In this midrash, God’s response to our waiting is to encourage us, perhaps a bit ironically, to think about WHY we’re waiting. God wants to know “nu, where you come from, people don’t start conversations? People don’t wish each other “peace?” We know that in the world of the midrash, God knows everything, God knows where Moses came from, so God doesn’t expect a literal answer. But, we are told to put ourselves in Moses’s sandals and to think: where did we learn to start, or not to start, conversations? Where did we learn that habit? Is that a habit we want, or just something we do because we’ve always done it? And, God wants us to know: it’s time to start conversations. It’s time to start saying to each other ‘peace’. It’s time to start staying what you want to say, and it’s time to start saying it NOW. This lesson is especially relevant on Rosh Hashannah.

One way to look at Rosh Hashannah is that it’s the holiday of starting important conversations. We review our years, we think of what it was that we’re proud of, and work on the things that we’re not proud of. We refocus on what’s important in life, and look at the big picture. And, we recognize that God/our sense of morality, is telling us: we are responsible for starting these conversations. And, further, we should start our conversations with saying ‘peace’, either literally or figuratively. We are responsible for starting these conversations with God, with our sense of morality, with each other. No one can do it for us. Rosh Hashannah is not a passive holiday.

The date of Rosh Hashannah actually marks two separate events. We know that Rosh Hashannah marks the beginning of the world. Today, we sing and state repetitively during mussaf ‘Today the world is born” – “Hayom Harat Olam”. Yet, we also learn from Vayikra Rabba that today is the birthday of humanity. Today is when Adam was born. Now, whether we look at this from a biblical literalist framework – where there are six days between creation, or whether we look at this from an evolutionary perspective – where there is more than four billion years between creation of the world and creation of humanity, it’s obvious that these two events, the events of creation of the world and creation of humanity, did not happen at the same time. So, what’s going on? According to tradition, how did both these events take place on one day, on Rosh Hashannah?

The answer lies in how we define ‘creation’. According to Judaism, humanity is of such importance that creation simply wasn’t finished until we were created. Whether we think of the biblical six days of heaven and earth, vegetation, and animals, or whether we think of the four billion years of earth before humans evolved, neither of these stories of creation was complete until we, humanity, arrived. And so, creation – the process of creation of everything – ended on the same day, no matter when it began – it ended on the day of Rosh Hashannah. And, this was the day in which our story began - this day began the story of humanity’s conversation with our sense of morality, and with our sense of the divine. Creation wasn’t complete until there was the possibility of relating to an other – of having a conversation.

So, here we are at the holiday of relating, the holiday of conversations. But, how to start? How can we have these conversations?

The theologian Martin Buber writes about how real relating, real conversations happen. Buber says that sometimes, we relate to each other simply as utilitarian; for example, we ask the person behind the counter to get us a coffee. At these times, we’re not interested in the person themselves, we’re interested simply in the interpersonal transaction, what a person can do for us. We can relate to God, or a sense of morality this way too, for example we attend synagogue and expect it to simply ‘do something for us’. Buber calls this type of relating I- It. Buber encourages us, instead, to look for another type of relationship, which he calls an I-thou relationship. In an I-thou relationship, we see the other as a whole person, with emotions, and thoughts of their own. We see the other as whole ‘thou’; a complex being worthy of respect, and attention. Buber says “All real living is meeting”. Buber posits that in fact, when we relate to each other this way, we also interact with the divine in each other. Buber states “Every particular Thou is a glimpse through to the eternal Thou”. When we relate to each other, God, or a sense of morality this way, we engage on a totally different level. On this level, our conversations, with humanity, with morality, with God, are charged with connecting and understanding, which leads to knowledge, both of self and of other. Mordechai Kaplan, in the article, “What is Judaism?” puts the same concept a bit differently. He says, “The study of any phase of human life…must be based upon the recognition that man is not merely a social animal, as Aristotle put it, but that his being more than an animal is due entirely to his leading a social life.” What makes us human, what rises us up beyond our animal senses, is our connections to each other. Our ability to wish each other “peace”. This is what was newly created on Rosh Hashannah, our ability to connect.

Returning to the midrash I began with, of God and Moses’s conversation on the mountain. Moses at first doesn’t know how to greet God; he doesn’t even say “Shalom”. And, so, even Moses learns. Moses asks “May a servant greet his master?”, and God replies “Yes! And..”. Here, artificial politeness doesn’t matter. Status of individuals doesn’t matter. Starting conversations does. God here wants to be interrupted. Wishing someone “peace” is so important that it’s worth interrupting higher contemplation, even attaching mysticism, in order to do that. And so, the next time Moses comes up the mountain, he greets God immediately. Moses starts off the conversation enthusiastically, by quoting God’s own words from the book of Numbers “May the power of the Lord increase”. We know from the midrash that Moses feels a bit self-conscious about it; we don’t know how God responds. But, it’s easy to imagine God smiling. Moses has learnt! Moses, who Maimonides states is the only person who has ever spoken with God “face to face”, has learnt, from trial and error, how to address God!

If Moses needs to learn from God how to have a conversation with him, how much more so do we have to learn. How much more so do we have to learn from each other how we should relate to each other. Perhaps, we can see the whole of Judaism as a system which teaches us how to do this. As the famous Talmudic story goes in tractate Shabbat, Rabbi Hillel was asked to teach the whole of the Torah on one foot. Rabbi Hillel replied “What is hateful to yourself, do not do to your fellow. That is the whole Torah; the rest is just commentary. Go and study it.”

I wanted to bring this story, and these thoughts to you today because I agree with Rabbi Hillel here: ultimately, we are here to make the world a better place. And, ultimately, we can’t do that alone; we need to do that in collaboration, based on deep relationships. And, Rabbi Hillel’s on-one-foot answer concludes with something essential: go and study. Without engaging with the hard work of improvement on Rosh Hashannah, on Yom Kippur, our lives would be so much poorer. We “go and study” today when we learn from each other and learn from our tradition, and our collaboration takes us higher and higher up the mountain.

Discussion questions:

  1. The midrash about Moses and God on the mountain is so rich, it’s one of my favorite midrashim. Any other insights or lessons from this midrash which you want to share?
  2. What do you think about the tension between relationships as subservient to goals, or goals as subservient to relationships? Are there examples that you can think of where it makes more sense to use buber’s I-it then I-thou? I’m curious about relationships in different spheres – synagogue, family, rabbi and congregation.
  3. What can’t we accomplish individually? What can’t we accomplish without connections?


Mordechai Kaplan defined God as “the power that makes for salvation”; one could define Judaism as ‘the powerful system which makes for connections”. As we continue our journey together, we celebrate all the ways that we connect, now and throughout the year.

Shannah Tova.